9 Artistic Lessons I Learned the Hard Way
“Is something wrong?” I was staring at my dinner and absentmindedly pushing food around with a fork. My wife noticed.
It was day 90, and things weren't going well.
For years I’d envied mindblowing digital paintings on ArtStation, but could never stick with learning process myself. Then in September of 2015 I decided to get serious, so I declared publicly, that I'd get 1,000 likes on ArtStation for 2D artwork within 6 months, or I'd give my younger cousin $1,000.
It was halfway through the challenge, and I’d barely made a dent in reaching the necessary thousand likes needed to pass the challenge.
"I'm exhausted. I never expected it to be this hard".
I practiced drawing religiously every night. Some days it was all I could think about.
But eventually it paid off. After practicing drawing and painting religiously, every night and weekend I eventually reached the goal of 1,000 likes on ArtStation - with just 5 days to spare.
It was 6 months of trial by fire, and I learned a lot in the process. If I had to start from scratched, I'd do a lot of things differently.
So in this post I’ll share with you 9 Biggest lessons that I learned the hard way. It's based on my own findings, as well insights from privately interviewing some of my favourite artists including Efflam Mercier and Johannes Helgeson.
Lesson 1: Establish a Learning Goal
This was huge. I never imagined that something so simple would have such a lasting impact.
In the past I'd just say “I want to learn X”. But this is far too vague.If you don't clearly outline exactly what it will look like when you finish, you'll quickly forget what and why you're doing it.
Here's a better goal: “I want to be able to render a still image of a T-Rex that looks like this, within 3 months, that gets at least 50 likes on ArtStation”.
It might sound over the top, but it’s goals like this that lead to actual results.
How to set a real goal:
- Decide what you want to make (eg. "a T-Rex")- This helps you later when you’re bombarded with tutorials and not sure what to follow. With a clear subject in mind, you'll be able to easily decide. “Animal anatomy course? Perfect! City plugin tutorial? I can skip that.”
- An example of the finished work (eg. "like this") - Find examples from other artists that have already done what you want to accomplish. This will act as both motivation, and as guidance to remind yourself the direction you’re travelling. I created an evernote of my favourite styles and inspiration that I referenced multiple times during my challenge.
- The format (eg. "a still image") - Knowing up front whether you’re making an image, animation or vfx composition goes back to point 1, helping you narrow your focus on what matters. For example, if you know you're making a still you can skip any rigging or animation learning.
- A quality metric (eg. "that gets at least 100 likes on ArtStation") - Without something to hold you accountable to your results, you’ll rush to the finish line with sloppy work just to say you're finished. You won’t be proud of this. Setting a quality goal keeps you honestly working to your best. Try something like “receive 50 likes for it on ArtStation” or "get 200 upvotes when posted on r/blender". Check out similar posts from people at the same skill level and number of followers as you.
- A time limit (eg. "within 3 months") - By creating a self-imposed deadline, you know that you can’t slack off and play games. You’ve gotta get this thing finished and posted online. This is especially helpful if you find yourself starting a lot of projects but never finishing them. A time limit helps you get it out the door.
For serious results: Set a Consequence
If you want to really, really increase your chances of success; set a consequence. I know you’re probably already thinking of reasons why this won't be necessary for you. But if you've struggled with following through in the past, this is your #1 ticket to success.
You need motivation to continue. And while you might be motivated right now while reading this, how will you feel after a hard day of work where you just want to relax and play some video games? Will you be as motivated then?
Humans are spectacularly bad at predicting how we'll feel in the future. A consequence safe guards that, by ensuring that no matter what, you'll do what it takes. It's called Loss Aversion.
Here's how to create a consequence that works:
- Set a definable goal - As mentioned above, this is a quality metric. I used 1,000 likes (collectively) on ArtStation within 6 months. If you want to copy this, I recommend 300-500 likes over 6 months, unless you already have a large following you can leverage.
- Set the stakes - Calculate what 1% of your annual salary is and set this as the stake. If you don’t have a wage yet, choose something you’d be significantly horrified of losing, like your iPhone or Xbox.
- Choose a receiver - This is someone you wouldn’t want to receive the stakes. The website Stickk.com makes this easy be offering some anti-charities to choose from and automatically deducting it from your account and giving it to them if you lose. Alternatively you can do what I do and choose a friendly rival - in my case a younger cousin. Ultimately though, it just needs to make you squeamish to think about how you’d feel if you lost and had to pay up.
- Notify the receiver and others - Tell everyone. If you don’t do this, there’s nothing to stop you privately cancelling it without anyone ever knowing. The moment I messaged my cousin I felt this immediately. The weight of “oh, this is actually happening” is very real.
Lesson 2: Practice Alone Doesn't Make Perfect
Our whole lives we’re told that “If you want to get good, you’ve gotta practice!”
But practice for the sake of practice can be a form of laziness.
I knew for myself, that putting on some headphones and repeating some sketch exercises that I'd done the day before was enjoyable. What I hated was actually learning! Reading books or watching courses required me to pay attention and take notes.
I remember when I first started drawing faces, they looked horrible! But I kept practicing for several days a row, with the belief that if I just keep practicing, I'll get better. But when I flipped through my notebook I could see that they hadn't really improved.
So I finally decided to do what I hated: put aside the notebook, turn on the computer and re-watch some training videos. It was then that I realized I’d completely misremembered several facial measurements, and had been drawing each face wrong repeatedly.
Once I fixed that, the drawings improved almost immediately:
So sometimes the solution is to stop practicing and start learning.
Especially at the start as you'll be making lots of mistakes, and practicing these mistakes can breed bad habits.
“[The biggest wastes of time are] not being conscious of what you're doing or doodling around (and I’m still guilty of this)... Anytime you're not sure what you're painting, it shows in the final.” -Efflam Mercier
Lesson 3: Real Learning Isn't Fun
I know this will come across like a wet blanket, but real learning isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows.
In fact the best kind of learning usually hurts the hardest, because it's unfamiliar area. We hate this though, so it's very easy to find yourself gravitating back to what you know.
The best artists are those that have taught themselves to move towards this pain, rather than from it.
“The inevitable excruciating frustration you will feel is natural, and something we've all experienced. What separates [the pros from the amateurs] is that we've learned to deal with this frustration, and push through it. A good tip is to force yourself to always try at least one new thing with every painting, such as a new brush, a new kind of shape, different subject etc.” -Johannes Helgeson
For more on this, check out deliberate practice videos.
Lesson 4: Time Doesn't Equal Skill
How many times have you heard that to get good at something requires X number of years practice?
I’m gonna open myself to criticism with this, but I think this is almost entirely bullshit.
In the last 6 months I’ve found young artists like Efflam Mercier who are just getting started in their career yet killing it already, and others that have been drawing for 20 years and are barely performing at an intermediate level.
So clearly there's more to it than time alone.
The reason I think we attach so much importance to time, is that it’s the easiest metric to compare on.
Comparing skill is difficult, especially since everything is so subjective. But time is easy! Everyone knows that 6 years experience is better than 4.
Putting in the time to learn is important. But treating time like it’s the reason you aren’t creating great works yet is often an excuse.
Lesson 5: Learn from Multiple Sources, not just one
This surprised me. I’d always assumed that top performing artists all followed the same basic workflow.
How wrong I was!
Almost every artist has their own unique style of working, and not all of them are optimal.
For example, you might find a professional artists who still manually draws guidelines on their canvas, without realizing that there’s a proper guidelines tool. Or someone else who manually paints colored ID masks (that have jagged edges), instead of just using a mask group.
I think the reason for this, is that Pros have very little motivation to keep learning - because they're already getting results. And so as software improves, or better workflows become known from newer artists, some pros will just be doing things the old fashioned way without realizing.
This is big, because if you attach yourself to one artist or tutor that you like, you'll miss out on everything that they don't know. (and yes this means you shouldn't get all your Blender learning from Blender Guru alone! :P)
The best artists are those that make an effort to stay relevant and keep learning new things, but they're the exception not the rule.
“Every artist (even beginners) are my teacher, because I can always find something to learn from them.” --JC Park
Lesson 6: Listening to critiques is the fastest way to grow
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Alex Alvarez, the CEO of the #1 CG arts school in the world: Gnomon.
We were discussing the quality of works that students produce, and how about 1% of any class are leagues above everyone else. These are the "superstars" that go on to become highly successful artists in the industry (Alex used Efflam Mercier as a great example of this).
I asked him what separates the superstars from everyone else, and he said, “Listening. Being able to ask and listen to critiques makes a huge difference.”
This goes back to lesson #3, because taking critiques on board isn’t fun!
For example, which of these online comments would you rather listen to after posting your work online: “wow Looks great! One of your best.” Or “You’re jumping ahead too much. Stick with the basics.”
Because I actually received both of them on the same image.
It’s easier to live in a reality where you’re crushing it, but to truly grow you need to listen to the critics. As they have the unique perspective of a fresh pair of eyes.
Obviously the best critiques are from other more experienced artists. But even if the only person offering critiques is your mum, it’s still better than nothing.
Lesson 7: Fundamentals Conquer All
Most of us were drawn to art after seeing something that excited us.
Maybe it was a movie where dinosaurs tore through a forest, or an anime where girls in skimpy outfits fought zombies, or a video game where robots fight for survival in a post apocalyptic city.
This is what I call the artistic “gold”. The stuff that makes us say “hell yeah! I wanna do that!”.
But just like a kid that wants his dessert, you too must first endure the vegetables.
The vegetables for artists are the fundamentals.
I'm sure you've heard of them.
For 2D it's stuff like, perspective, gesture, anatomy, values, color, rendering and composition.
Like filling pages and pages of your notebook with “the bean”:
Boring, but highly nutritious.
They're concepts and lessons that are fundamental to understanding how to make unique work that really shines.
Most of the problems I encountered during my 6 month challenge, came from not putting enough time and practice into the fundamentals.
The quicker you can understand these fundamental lessons, the faster you’ll progress from an amateur to a pro.
“All too often, beginner artists are too eager to delve into color and light and epic compositions, without having first learned the fundamentals such as perspective, how to describe form in line and value, gesture and storytelling. [They] often try to add value to their paintings by using fancy custom brushes and lots of texture, which makes their paintings noisy and without focus. Good brushes won't save you if you have a weak foundation, they will only shed more light on your lack of ability.” -Johannes Helgeson
Having said all this, the #1 challenge for most artists is staying motivated enough to come back for day 2. Which leads us to…
Lesson 8: You've gotta have fun (or you'll quit)
Fundamentals are important, yes. So are critiques and deliberate practice.
But if you try to do too much of these "right things" all at once, you'll likely burn yourself out and quit. As the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
So how do you balance learning with fun?
I'm sure there's better methods than this, but worked for me was creating a regiment. Some days of hard-to-swallow learning, with a few days of pleasure projects.
Example: 5 days of Fundamental "boring" lessons then 2 days of a guilt-free pleasure projects. This gives you the necessary fundamental learning, whilst keeping you interested.
Plus, the pleasure project days will give you a much needed practical application for the fundamentals. Which is often lacking in pure theory classes.
As you progress you’ll be able to taper off the learning with more and more pleasure. But at the start the scale should be more tipped to learning. Just make sure you alter it if you find yourself losing interest.
Lesson 9: Create What You Love
If you like drawing cars, then draw cars! There’s a lot of pressure on artists to do what the industry wants, or what your family and friends will approve of. But to both stay motivated, and to make sure you're trying your best, you've gotta do what you love.
Don't feel guilty at making a mech robot, just because everyone is sick of that already.
Don’t feel that you need to render architecture, just because that’s the safest job in the industry.
Do what you love.
When I first started I was reluctant to try anything that could be seen as overly “sexy”, even though that was a large part of what I liked about 2D. In hindsight I was probably worried about what my family would say if they saw it on Facebook. But as Stan Prokopenko said in our recent interview, you don't have to answer to anyone.
So after holding back for so long, I decided to do my first "sexy" drawing:
Will people judge? Of course. I know for a fact my sister hates this. But that'll happen no matter what you do.
Art is one of the few outlets in life where you have 100% control over what you produce. There's enough laws and regulations in the rest of your life, to feel constrained in art too. It’s liberating once you truly realize this.
So that's the 9 Lessons I learned in the last 6 months.
Do you have a learning lesson or tip you think would be useful to other artists? Share it in the comments below!